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Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form Hardcover – October 9, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. One of the world's most respected poetry critics, and a Harvard professor, Vendler began her career with a short book about W.B. Yeats's prose and plays (Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays). This new monumental study of the technical (and, ultimately, emotional) accomplishment in Yeats's poems represents something close to a life's work: it will surely attract international attention. Like Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, this volume looks at the way a great poet put individual poems together, and at why the formal shapes of a temporal art work as they do. A preliminary chapter looks at form, proportion and meter in three famous poems; later installments consider the progress of the series of technical investigations in his sometimes airy, incantatory early verse; the efforts to combine high and low speech that marked his ballads; his anxious, and finally majestic, Irish transformations of the originally English-and-Italian sonnet; and his metamorphosis of the eight-line stanza (ottava rima) into a fit motor for the masterpiece Among School Children. Vendler's careful book will likely advance the way experts see Yeats, but she also speaks to all the readers who care about the Irish Nobelist's body of poetry, which looks more complex, and more delightful, through Vendler's lens. (Nov.)
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Review

This new monumental study of the technical (and, ultimately, emotional) accomplishment in Yeats's poems represents something close to a life's work: it will surely attract international attention...Vendler's careful book will likely advance the way experts see Yeats, but she also speaks to all the readers who care about the Irish Nobelist's body of poetry, which looks more complex, and more delightful, through Vendler's lens. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2007-08-20)

Helen Vendler has entirely consumed William Butler Yeats...As she leads us by the hand through some of the best-known poems in the English language, we discover how little we knew about them after all, and how hard the poet worked to make them sound...inevitable. Our Secret Discipline is so much an intellectual feast. (John Leonard Harper's 2007-12-01)

Vendler can be as charming a tour guide through Yeats as she is a learned one. And her frame of examining Yeats's external and internal lyric structures offers a new, insightful, and often revelatory map of Yeatsian terrain. (Tess Taylor Barnes and Noble Review 2007-12-03)

Is there any critic more thorough than Helen Vendler?... Her carefulness, her attention to minutiae, is a rare quality, particularly when set against the current mores of poetry criticism, which, for all its highly technical vocabulary, has been for many years an enterprise largely impressionistic...Any serious reader of English poetry should be delighted that, in Our Secret Discipline, she has turned her attention to the question of form in W.B. Yeats's poetry. (Sam Munson New York Sun 2007-12-12)

A book whose value may exceed anything [Vendler] has hitherto produced. It is the first exhaustive account of Yeats's lyric styles as they revealed themselves in 50 years of verse forms as "the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet's moral urgency." Vendler is the ideal close reader and listener to undertake the very large task of coming to terms with Yeats's poetry...The great merit of Vendler's approach is that she never rests content with merely identifying and describing Yeats's formal choices but goes on to consider how such forms are employed in the service of moral and human content...She is intrepid and only occasionally over-ingenious...Readers who have assumed they were familiar, even intimate, with his body of lyric verse will read Vendler's pages and find their eyes have been opened, in Hart Crane's words, to "new thresholds, new anatomies." (William H. Pritchard Boston Globe 2008-02-17)

[A] superb study of Yeats's uses of lyric form...Vendler offers much astute description of the architecture of Yeats's poems, but also considers the way in which his forms reflected his cultural vision...It certainly helps enormously to have a critic as expert as Vendler describe in slow motion, frame by frame, so to speak, her understanding of the effects of each choice the poet makes. Her shrewd, tightly focused commentaries encourage us to take each poem slowly, on its own terms, and to pay attention in particular to tbe ways in which it either conforms to or confounds the expectations it fosters...Vendler's study of his uses of lyric form is an indispensable guide to anyone interested in the means whereby Yeats transfigured into "masterful images" the random contingencies of life. (Mark Ford New York Review of Books 2008-04-03)

[Vendler's] chapters on Yeats's "Byzantium" lyrics, his courtly ottava rima poems and his blank verse are all filled with sensitive, compelling insights that will be critical guideposts for years to come. (Anthony Cuda Washington Post Book World 2008-04-20)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Reprint edition (November 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026957
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,078,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
The fact that Helen Vendler majored in chemistry in college and got a Fulbright Fellowship for mathematics is evident in this book.

Dense? Yes. Intimidating? That, too. But comprehensive, based on evidence, insightful, and ultimately illuminating? Very much so. Vendler is scientific and logical -- one might even say, endowed with a good dollop of common sense. She doesn't intuit a claim and force evidence to prove it; she appraises the data -- i.e. the most obvious elements of a poem, its stylistic characteristics -- and tries to explain, why? and answer, what does it do? Sometimes, the analysis and conclusion will be more convincing than others, but the efforts are never less than impressive. This is as much a book revealing the depth of Yeats's art as it is a revelation of the possibilities of lyric form and a reminder to contemporary poets that there's an amazing and often overlooked arsenal available in rhyme, meter, and other elements of poetic style.
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Format: Hardcover
Vendler's book is an extended application of close-reading scholarship to the poems of Yeats, with particular emphasis on the metrical structures of the poems. Lest that summary leave the impression that it is an arid technical exercise, I should stress that this fine book offers immense benefits to a potentially large readership, including: (1) anyone who enjoys Yeats and wants to deepen that appreciation, (2) students and scholars of English poetry, especially prosody, and (3) intelligent readers in general who would like to experience close reading analysis at the feet of an expert. Admirers in category (1) will come away with a new dimension to their love for Yeats. Those in category (2) may be surprised to discover how hard and how thoroughly Yeats applied himself to technical aspects of English prosody, and will probably take a new look at other poets. The book could be read in sections, and would thus easily lend itself to a supplementary role in a literature course, but I would recommend reading it all the way through. Finally, it is well-written.
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Format: Hardcover
I thank Helen Vendler for explaining the meaning of many familiar lines, such as these (from different poems): "That is no country for old men", "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?", and "The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun".
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The best thing in the book is her deconstruction of "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death," one of the greatest poems in the universe. And by "deconstruction," I don't mean any theoretical nonsense. I mean the way she linguistically takes the stanzas apart. She's especially good with the final one, a quatrain as tight as an equation:

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

It's always nice to meet someone who loves those lines as much as you do. She was less successful with another favorite, "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," a clear presentation of the anima archetype. She might benefit from reading James Olney's "The Rhizome and the Flower," which doesn't address "Robartes" directly but does tie Yeats to Jung and the pre-Socratics.

Although she likes to speak "ex cathedra," Vendler is not infallible. I once had the distinct displeasure of hearing her compare A. R. Ammons to Keats, Wordsworth, and Thomas Gray. I haven't forgiven her yet.
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